(Photo credit: Artes Max)
After dropping to third place in 2016, Ferrari returned to Maranello to lick its wounds over the winter. The team went 'radio silent' with the media, too busy plotting their comeback. And it paid off when they scored a surprise breakthrough in the season opener, Sebastian Vettel beating Lewis Hamilton in a straight fight in Melbourne.
After that, the battle went back and forth and both teams knew they had a real championship fight on their hands. Ferrari's SF70H was proving a genuinely competitive all-rounder, while Mercedes admitted that the W08 was a 'bit of a diva'. By Monaco, Vettel was 25 points ahead of Hamilton and Ferrari had 17 points over Mercedes.
Unfortunately, that proved to be the high point as far as their challenge went. Vettel still led the drivers standings by the summer break. However, Mercedes was firmly back on top in the constructor's battle. After that the air seemed to go out of the Ferrari effort and they could not match a resurgent Mercedes, either on pace or reliability. The Asian leg of the season was particularly damaging and the constructor's title was formally decided in Austin.
Despite taking five poles and Grand Prix wins in 2017, the gloom at Maranello was palpable. It had been a major leap forward on the previous year., but the question now was whether Ferrari could carry their momentum into 2018 and go one better, or whether their progress has already stuttered to a halt.
Impressions from testing
The key question raised from testing was: will Red Bull start as Mercedes' closest challengers or did Ferrari just encounter specific issues at Barcelona that can be remedied in time for the new season? One thing is for sure, the Italian team's pace was blistering enough to warrant speculation they will still be in the mix.
Then there were those mysterious plumes of smoke that wafted out of the car whenever it was fired up in the garage. Perhaps a giveaway clue they have been hurt by tweaks to the engine regulations? Vettel's 1:17.182 was the fastest lap overall, but it still fell short of a hoped-for 1:16, with the four-time champion admitting on his final day they needed to find more performance from an otherwise reliable SF71-H.
In theory, this should be Ferrar's year. It is rare for one team to dominate the sport for 5 years in a row, however the last team to do that was Ferrari back in the early 2000s.
Last year’s Ferrari was around 14cm shorter in wheelbase than the Mercedes, helping it to be significantly lighter (pre-ballast) but contributing to a higher drag level and potentially surrendering some underfloor downforce.
On the Scuderia’s new car, the wheelbase has been extended by moving the front axle forward relative to the cockpit, and the rear back by a slightly greater extent. And the significance of this change? A potential downforce benefit at both ends of the car. However aerodynamics mean squat when their engine was down 10-15bhp on the Mercedes last year, a fact that probably lost them the title. An improved engine could see the Scuderia pull clear of the rest as the aero package combined with the overall race solution was arguably the strongest on the grid.
This section is by far the easiest to predict. Raikonnen will hopefully pick up podiums to help Ferrari's "constructor" battle. Meanwhile Vettel will have his orders to win the championship at all costs. Ferrari will look to replace Kimi at the end of the year and the bigger question is whether they need a whole new lineup, a fresh face to keep Vettel on his toes or an experienced head they can use as a second driver. Ferrari history has always led towards the latter, hopefully their new team structure will promote a culture that breeds competition between drivers. Gone are the days of one driver teams and Ferrari must look to two genuine options if they want to provide more competition. They seem to forget that Hamilton vs Rosberg may well have driven development from Mercedes that led to their domination. This year isn't Vettel vs Raikkonen, it's Ferrari vs Ferrari to decide the future of the biggest team in F1.
"Necessity is the mother of invention."